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Friday, 26 August 2016

Vale James Merralls - Peter Hourigan writes about a pioneer of Australian film criticism

The death of James Merralls earlier this week would seem to have been well covered in Legal Circles, with tributes from the High Court of Australia and the Attorney-General George Brandis.
But none that I have seen recall Jim’s early contribution to film culture.  I’m not the best person to write about this, but perhaps I can start the ball rolling.  By the time I came to Melbourne University and the Film Society as a naive young country boy, Merralls had already largely moved on into his legal career, which was certainly successful, and included a QC. I probably met him three or four times, in connection with Film journal and I was quite overawed, not least by the reputation of his legacy in MUFS.
It must have been during his law studies at Melbourne University in the 1950s, that he was also  involved in film culture (not that it had that name then) and most tangibly in the creation of FILM JOURNAL.  First published, and edited by Merralls this appeared in 1956, clearly one of the very, very first independent “serious” magazines on film.  
He is also credited (by researchers Tom O’Regan and Huw Walmsley-Evans on Screening the Past) as the first editor of ANNOTATIONS ON FILM.  ANNOTATIONS was the ‘in-house’ journal for Melbourne University Film Society, with notes on the films being screened by MUFS. Although no longer being published, it has somewhat morphed into the CTEQ section of Senses of Cinema, with its notes on films being screened by Melbourne Cinémathèque.   These were all parts of the world where a number of the friends of this blog, including Geoff Gardner its blog-master and myself first came across this new approach to “the pictures” and made our own first attempts at writing about films.
FILM JOURNAL was far less parochial, reaching ambitiously outside the campus. The first edition is labelled “British Film Issue”. Physically, it shows how the budding cineastes of the fifties explored their ideas in the days before instant blogging.  It is simply, two sheets of paper, foolscap size, printed back and front on (I guess) an office roneo-machine.  It’s then folded, so you have a magazine of eight pages.
Merralls is listed as the editor and he writes one article on “The Films of [George More] O’Ferrall” .  On one of the films The Heart of the Matter, with a presumably autobiographical hint, he bemoans its being denied a city release in Melbourne. “This is a pity because despite its shortcomings the film has qualities of sincerity and restraint which, anathema as they may be to the seventeen-year-old self-identificationalist, should appeal to audiences whose humanity has not as yet been blunted by too many Cinemascope magna opera.”
The films covered in this issue weren’t those that only a few years later his successors at MUFS were valuing, but the other main article (The Technical Man in the Business: A Study of David Lean by James Holden) shows reaching beyond the university grounds with “The writer acknowledges the generous co-operation of Mr. David Lean in supplying data for this essay.)   (At that time, Lean’s latest film was Summer Madness (Summertime) 1955)
The March-April 1957 is still roneoed, but has a properly printed cover with a block illustration.  And even more it is breaking out of any parochial world, with an interview with Jean Renoir (conducted by Gideon Bachmann) sourced from America.
When I first became aware of Film Journal and MUFS Merralls was already well underway with his legal career, and moving out of university film society circles.  He was now co-editor with Brian Davies (shortly to direct The Pudding Thieves). The magazine was now a glossy, commercially printed magazine. In a look at some current trends in the cinema available in Australia by early 1961, he finished his article with:
 “It would be absurd to come to some final judgment in praise or condemnation of Hiroshima Mon Amour. The qualities of its images and sound are manifold and manifest. It does suggest that in straying from the mainstream of French films in search of new subtleties of expression the ‘poetic’ cinema will not easily find firm ground. Les Quatre Cents Coups is propelled by its acceptance of tradition to a beachhead.  The new wave carrying Hiroshima may be found to be travelling towards marshlands.”
Sadly, I have to admit that the final edition of Film Journal appeared in December 1965 with myself as the death watch editor.  James Merralls was still involved, as a member of the publication’s Board. Student days mean that people’s involvement does often end when their studies end, but Merralls had kept his connection long after he’d already started developing his legal career.
But those roughly ten years of Film Journal, surely his baby, are significant in the development of film culture in Australia as we know it today, even if some of the films, directors and genres that were espoused as it developed were not those that he would have explored.
In his study of film culture in Australia, Barrett Hodsdon wrote (of early critical writing on film),

     “Most of these journals sprang into being to cater for prevailing local needs and concerns of film society members. However, the MUFS supported Film Journal (FJ), which survived from the mid ‘50s to the mid ‘60s did attain the status of an internationally regarded film magazine. ...some of its early issues were the first examples of published director studies in Australian film writing – John Huston, George Cukor, Robert Siodmak, Ernst Lubitsch – initiated and compiled by Charles Higham, Joel Greenberg and Garth Buckner.  HIgham was later to become a Hollywood based film journalist writing star biographies.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the article and for acknowledging the contribution of James Merralls, a great, multi-faceted, individual.

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